Climate Change Could Spell Trouble for Europe’s Electrical Grid

by |August 28, 2017
power lines at sunset

As the world heats up, new patterns in how we use electricity could strain the power grid. Photo: Ian Muttoo via Flicker

Climate change will shift Europe’s peak demand for electricity from winter to summer, and from north to south, according to a new study. A team of scientists from Germany and the United States found that while total electricity use will more or less stay the same, changes in the patterns of demand could strain power grids.

The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that southern Europe’s daily peak loads will likely get higher, and overall consumption for the majority of countries will be highest during the hottest seasons, driven by people seeking refuge from the heat outdoors.

“A few decades ago, no ordinary car in Europe had air conditioning, but today almost every automobile has it. The same development will probably happen with buildings in Europe,” said coauthor Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). “People will need to cool down their environments to keep up their life and economic productivity.”

The study is the first to use observed hourly electricity data across 35 European countries—which are connected by the world’s largest synchronous electrical grid—to estimate how climate change affects the intensity of peak demand and overall electricity consumption.

Previous work on the relationship between temperature and electricity consumption focused primarily on single countries and the overall consumption impacts. But recent research suggests that the effects of changes in peak demand may be much larger and costlier than those on overall demand, putting the focus on times when the power grid is already stressed.

“The response of electricity consumption to temperature changes is similar across European countries,” said lead author Leonie Wenz of PIK. Wenz said peak and total electricity use seem to be smallest on days with a maximum temperature of about 22°C (72°F); when this daily maximum temperature either rises or falls, usage increases. Countries already experiencing very hot temperatures serve as examples for the future of cooler countries, which now use more energy in winter. Over time, demand will shift from nations like Sweden or Norway to ones like Portugal or Spain. At the same time, annual peak load will shift from winter to summer in most countries.

While the study indicates that the projected effect on total consumption is nearly zero, the shift in spatial as well as seasonal usage will be a fundamental challenge for Europe, Wenz argues. “This will have important ramifications for the transmission infrastructure, peak generating capacity and storage requirements,” he said.

Coauthor Max Auffhammer of the University of California, Berkeley, said that rising heat will create related problems. “When it’s hot outside, air quality suffers. People are more stressed, aggressive, violent, and less productive,” he said. “The main adaptation mechanism available to humans to combat high outdoor temperatures is a cooled indoor built environment, which in most settings requires the consumption of significant amounts of electricity.”

This post was adapted from a press release by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.


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